Ordinarily, a team as physically dominant and historically rich as Kahuku would have nothing to fear.
Last year's 14-13 upset loss to McKinley, however, was the one blemish on an otherwise sterling regular season for the Red Raiders (11-2 overall). It's a big reason why the rest of the Red East has reason to hope whenever they face the defending Oahu Interscholastic Association and state champions.
Coach Reggie Torres guided Kahuku to a state title in his first season last year. He and his staff follow a tougher academic standard -- a 2.0 grade-point average plus no Fs permitted -- that directs players to go a bit further and deeper.
While that bar of excellence has had a tough short-term effect -- 17 Red Raiders were on academic probation and did not qualify for the trip to Utah this week -- Torres is comfortable with his team. Of the 96 players on roster, 56 made the travel squad, which will face Utah state champion Bingham tomorrow. The game will be played on the campus of Southern Utah.
As they were in the loss to Saint Louis two weeks ago, second-ranked Kahuku will still be in evaluation mode. "It's the same thing. Trying to determine our playoff hopes," Torres said from Las Vegas yesterday.
"It's really hot here. We had a great practice at UNLV, just getting acclimated. Now they're shopping at the premium outlets, having a good time being with each other, bonding," he added.
A unified Kahuku team spells difficulty for everyone else.
"Kahuku's always the favorite," McKinley coach Bobby Grey said. "But anybody can win."
The Knights bounced back from a shellacking at Mililani to give Kamehameha a strong challenge over the weekend.
Castle has 21 returnees from last year's 3-3 squad (3-5 overall). Among six two-way ironmen, Solomon Koehler will lead the way. The Knights ranked second in total defense last year thanks to Koehler and a posse of Knights who have since graduated.
Koehler, a two-way lineman, is big (6-2, 315), strong and fast. With impressive combine numbers -- 365 bench, 33 bench reps (185), a 5.15 40, 25-inch vertical and 4.8 shuttle, he is listed as the No. 3 defensive tackle in the nation by Rivals.com.
"We haven't had a kid his size with this much athletic ability in all my years," Maeda said. "He's tenacious, big and strong. We're going to try and keep him on the field as long as we can."
Overall, Castle has just three returning starters on each side of the ball. Tauoli Maae (5-11, 215) is key for Castle at linebacker and offensive line.
Kawehi Sablan (5-11, 195) is a linebacker-running back who is elusive with the ball and very physical on defense.
Bronson Kekahuna, who had five touchdowns called back last year, could shine this fall. "It was a sign of how inconsistent and lacking in discipline we were," Maeda said of the penalties.
Blake Rapozo, a Kenny Stabler type, and Thomas Ilae (5-11, 180) may share time at quarterback. Ilae, Maeda said, "is a physical specimen. Like a Vince Young. They offer different qualities."
"We've been fortunate. Our defense, year in and out, has kept us in the game. It's been almost where our defense couldn't make a mistake because our offense struggled," Maeda said. "A lot of breakdowns last year were penalties, dropped balls."
"We're looking to rebound. We took a couple of steps back. We worked hard as a team, but we didn't get where we wanted to be," Maeda said. "We weren't as disciplined, and that cost us a couple of games."
The Govs led the Red East in total offense last season (338 yards per game) and went 6-3 with a runner-up finish in the OIA.
However, their top producers have graduated. That's why Okimoto and his staff are counting on their stellar defensive unit to hold down the fort.
The entire starting linebacker and defensive back corps return, and the line has been fortified by first-year starters Vili Fehoko Jr. and Sila Tonga.
Joshua Fernandez showed flashes of brilliance and explosion as a backup to Hercules Sula last year. His promise this season has been tempered by a shoulder injury suffered in last week's 14-14 tie with Damien.
"This year is when he can display his talent. I like the way he hits the hole. He hits the running lanes well," said Okimoto.
New quarterback Sio Iu, Okimoto noted, "is coming along."
The Govs have added a few new wrinkles to their West Coast offense, but are without former offensive coordinator Elroy Chong. They've learned while key offensive linemen sat out with academic probation.
"We're waiting to see if some of them will be ready this week. Without those guys, we got a young group stepping in," Okimoto said.
Kahuku Red Raiders
The Raiders are truly Polynesia's team, with players from across the South Pacific. The program is also a magnet for the children of Kahuku graduates now living in Utah. Among the latest to transfer is starting quarterback Jray Galeai, son of former Kahuku standout Ray Galeai.
Junior Mataafa, a backup to Lene Aumua last season, is in the tailback spot and could have an All-State-caliber season. However, the sturdy speedster will run behind a patched-up offensive line for a while. The O-line has immense size -- 300 pounds per position -- and talent with Benji Kemoeatu and Patrick Au, but is currently being hit by academic shortcomings. Compounding the challenge, Anthony Siilata (6-2, 305) moved from offensive guard to nose tackle to fortify the defense.
Junior Lala Ellsworth (6-4, 300) has emerged as the starting center.
A corps of fast linebackers gives Kahuku more dimensions than last year's tough defense. Alema Tachibana (6-3, 200) and Paipai Falemau (6-4, 215) have 4.5 speed in the 40. Shiloah Te'o, an All-State selection, anchors the secondary.
Galeai has much to learn as the Red Raiders expand last year's limited playbook. Getting the O-line in sync, with and without AP players, with Galeai and the backfield will take time. Siilata's presence in the trenches will help Falemau and Tachibana make a lot of plays. In their matchup three weeks ago, the defense allowed just one touchdown against Saint Louis until reserves took over.
Patience is key for the Red Raiders. That's the approach Torres and offensive coordinator Sterling Carvalho are taking, particularly with Galeai.
Defense is the first order of control at Kailua, where 10 starters return. "We were very young last year and made an investment in that," said Rosolowich, now in his third year. "We're hoping to bear fruit there."
The unit is anchored by its linebackers. Middle linebacker Kaimi Sarkisian (5-11, 225) is flanked by Billy Oden (5-11, 218) and Dustin Naki (5-11, 210).
All five of Kailua's returning offensive starters are on the line. They include Corey Friel (6-3, 265, Jr.), Jared Kaimana-Abejon (6-2, 220, Jr.), Keoni Funtanilla (5-8, 250, Sr.) and right tackle Chauncy Makainai (6-4, 310, Jr.).
Kailua's young backfield is learning on the job.
"When we played Leilehua our line did a good job, but our backs need to understand how holes open up, the philosophy of the kind of running game that we have," Rosolowich said. Leilehua won that nonconference game 6-3.
"Our offense needs to jell and work as a unit. I know coach Marcus (Malepeai) is doing a great job," Rosolowich said of his offensive coordinator.
The Mustangs went to Iolani and upset the No. 8 Raiders 28-25 on Saturday, perhaps the biggest conquest in Mellor's two-plus seasons.
With 26 returnees, including six starters back on each side of the ball, Mellor's system is taking root. Seven, sometimes eight, players play both ways. Among them is Bruce Andrews (6-0, 185), who plays wide receiver, defensive back and kick returner.
"He's a smart kid, the fastest on the team," Mellor said, noting Andrews' 4.4-4.5 speed. "He really can't be guarded one-on-one."
The Mustangs' veer option is under the command of senior quarterback Cody vonAppen (5-10, 180), who ran for 97 yards and three scores against Iolani.
"He's experienced now, his third year running the offense. He's kind of a coach on the field," Mellor said. "He takes the words out of my mouth sometimes."
Among the two-way ironmen is left tackle-linebacker Dillan Hanawahine (5-9, 225). "He's the strongest guy on the team, a great student of the game. He always sits up front. He leads by example on the field," Mellor said.
Hanawahine is one of the anchors of a 4-4 defense geared to stop the run-first powerhouses of the Red East.
The team is older, wiser and more composed. "It's easier with Cody. We're going to be very competitive," Mellor said.
"Last year, we lost nailbiters, heartbreakers. I expect us to be a lot more competitive."
With just one returning starter on each side of the ball, Grey and his staff are in major teaching mode. Even the lone returning offensive starter, Earvin Sione, is learning a new position. Fortunately, he has developed quite rapidly since the move from wide receiver to quarterback.
McKinley has just 16 returnees on a roster of 50. Duplicating last year's 5-4 record, including 4-2 in the Red East, will be tough.
The offense, with Sione's 6-4 frame and passing ability, is ahead of the defense. Sione passed for 219 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against No. 4 Punahou. Out of McKinley's spread offense, Sione ran for 67 yards and passed for 255 on 20-for-41 accuracy in last week's nonconference loss to No. 10 Kapolei.
"He's a great leader, very respectful. He makes mistakes, but he battles back," the coach said.
Wide receiver Tavita Woodward, a 6-3 junior, was breathtaking in the Punahou game. He caught five passes for 169 yards, including a 75-yard catch and gallop down the sideline. Woodward's twin brother, Tana, also figures to play a prominent role for the Tigers.
"I love those two kids. I like their attitude and work ethic. It's a funny competition between the two, only two, always trying to out do each other," Grey said.
Defensively, lone returning starter Desmond Gabonia has moved from cornerback to safety. The Tigers have given up 100 points in two games against two potent offenses, but linebacker Kauhiwai Kalama has stood out.
The Tigers face Castle tomorrow as the fight for a playoff berth in the tight East begins.
Like Castle, the Tigers hope to stay healthy, particularly with their key players.
"They're buying into our philosophy. We had a strong senior class, so there's a lot of question marks that have been answered in preseason, but we do have talent and we're definitely gonna compete," Grey said. "Depth is an issue right now, but for the most part, our team is really young. The kids are getting games underneath their belt. We'll be fine."
McKinley has a diamond in the rough with running back Will Starks. The junior sat out the Punahou game, but returned against Kapolei and was explosive, with seven catches for 155 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown. He also returned a kickoff 90 yards for a score.
Moanalua Na Menehune
Na Menehune struggled to a 1-5 mark last season (2-6 overall), but 15 starters return. All-State selection Jordan Monico has sat through the first two nonconference games as Moanalua tied Pearl City (14-all) and defeated Pac-Five (28-7).
Backup Pono Tiave picked up at quarterback as Monico rested a bruised knee. Tiave, who normally starts at slotback, ran for a school-record 230 yards on 20 carries against Pac-Five, including two touchdowns.
Martinez's blend of the veer option and spread (flex) option is perfectly suited to Tiave and Monico, a 6-1, 222-pound senior.
The defensive unit shut out Pearl City until reserves entered in the final 9 minutes. Moanalua defensive end Montay Rover (6-0, 218) had an outstanding offseason at camps. So far, he has 18 tackles, including five for loss, and three sacks.
Martinez likes his offense's cohesion. "Our starting group is better than where we were last year, for sure. And half another string we can rotate in any time. Our guys spent a lot of time together working every day," he said, noting that 35 went to summer camp on Maui.
Moanalua is hoping to get some players back from injury soon. Four starters have not seen action yet.